The South American Stoner Comedy You Haven't Heard About
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because no matter where you’re from, these guys are side-stitch-inducing.
By Matthew Stein
By 8 a.m. the pungent smell of marijuana has enveloped every corner of comedian Led Varela’s quaint Caracas home. He and collaborator José Rafael Guzmán — Venezuela’s two most daring comedians — are taking turns typing the fourth draft of a screenplay for a movie they’ll star in later this year. Between pages, they smoke weed and ask the big questions: Who would win in a bout between Mike Tyson and a gorilla? Is peeing in the sink ever justifiable? “Led initially thought it was,” says Guzmán, “until I tried it in his.”
Varela, 31, and Guzmán, 34, have been working in the comedy milieu — writing for satirical publications, filming skits and doing stand-up — for nearly a decade. Their jokes are dark, so dark that you might think laughing was an inappropriate response if they weren’t guffawing themselves. In an environment rife with challenges — power cutbacks prevent Caracas’ theater industry from operating on weeknights — these men have found a way forward, not via incisive political commentary but through good ol’ stoner escapism. Their latest ambition: an action comedy pairing Pineapple Express-esque humor with Lethal Weapon–style chase sequences. It’s “exploring virgin territory,” says legendary Venezuelan comedian Luis Chataing. Varela and Guzmán’s brand of irreverent, sarcastic black humor “goes against the current,” Chataing says, and will allow them to do “something distinct and big, not only in Venezuela but [in] all of Latin America.”
Latin America has long hosted a vibrant comedy scene; Mexico has produced some of the region’s most influential comedians — Chespirito, Cantinflas — but each country has its own flavor. “We’re a community primed to laugh and be happy,” says Chataing. “We’re also a society that needs to express ourselves.” With the launch of Comedy Central Latin America in 2012, the political satire genre in particular “has been promoted and multiplied,” Chataing says. But the possibility of government censorship and the ascendance of social media have turned some artists away from TV. In Mexico, political parodies such as “El Pulso de la República” (“The Pulse of the Republic”) are broadcast on YouTube, while in Venezuela, comedy has largely migrated to the radio.
Cinema, however, is still a nascent industry, and most comedies are romantic, says award-winning Venezuelan producer Rodolfo Cova, who is making Varela and Guzmán’s upcoming film. Their humor is not for everyone, he says, but he believes a “young, irreverent and not so socially correct crowd” will lap it up.
At a recent performance of his stand-up show, “No Quiero Show” (“I Don’t Want a Show”), Guzmán went from calling Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro a retard to a PowerPoint presentation surrounding the mystery of Chinese food: “If you bite into a rib and there’s no bone, you know you ate the penis,” he said, eliciting a mix of repulsed groans and laughter. Varela’s shows prove equally unrestrained: Threesomes, sexual fantasies and porn-star sex are all touched upon. “I like the dirty jokes that provoke that uncomfortable feeling in people,” explains Varela. “I don’t know why.”
Growing up in Caracas, both Varela and Guzmán found reality more uncomfortable at times than any script they could write. Varela’s father, for instance, a painter from a poor Uruguayan family, wasn’t much of a provider; a bungled real estate deal cost the family its house and savings. “At one house our roof was so shit that it rained inside,” Varela says.
As for Guzmán’s late mother, a lawyer? She was no suit, he says: “When I was a baby, she nearly killed our baby sitter. She was changing me when she noticed I smelled of vagina. The next day she snuck into my room and saw the baby sitter placing little pieces of Oreo around her vagina for me to eat, and absolutely lost it.” Although Guzmán relates this story in a playful manner, he insists it’s no joke. Whether the story betrays a memoirist’s obsession with self-excavation or a storyteller’s delight in eliciting a reaction is hard to say.
The duo hit it off in college when they were introduced by a mutual friend. They performed their first stand-up act at the same open mic and then collaborated on a comic-strip blog and Web videos. At the time, musical sketches dominated comedy; being among the first wave of stand-ups wasn’t easy. “We’d perform at dingy bars full of drunks and people asleep at their tables and we’d be joking about Facebook and foreign visas,” recalls Guzmán, “and people would look at us like we were crazy.” But the experience proved “transcendent,” says Varela. In their last semester of school, they abandoned their studies in architecture (Varela) and orthodontics (Guzmán) to turn pro. “When I told my parents, my father smashed a frying pan against the ground,” says Guzmán. “We still use it, but only half of it is functional.”
In 2011, after four years of stand-up, Varela, and then Guzmán, was recruited by George Harris, a top Caracas comedian, to participate in a three-man stand-up act, “Mi País, Tu País” (“My Country, Your Country”). Taboo topics — drugs, sex, racism — abounded. The act was a roaring success, leading Varela and Guzmán to writing and acting jobs on Chataing’s popular political satire program, Chataing TV, and a follow-up stand-up show, “Los Hijos del Ocio” (“The Sons of Leisure”). But in mid-2014, the government forced Chataing TV off the air; soon after, “The Sons of Leisure” concluded. Without work, but with their reputations firmly established, Varela and Guzmán began to fulfill their long-held ambition of writing a screenplay.
It’ll be months until the script comes to life; there are still funding gaps to negotiate, not to mention spiraling inflation and an exodus of talent. If the film is to be successful, explains Cova, they’ll need a distributor who can sell the rights internationally. Good thing that stoner culture translates worldwide.
- Matthew Stein, OZY AuthorContact Matthew Stein